Have you ever been in one of those meetings where you leave feeling exhausted. Not because your synapses have been zinging with energy and creative thought, more because you've been beaten into fatigued submission by the weight of collective compromise, where no-one feels that the best outcome was achieved by all.
Well then, you're not alone. As Claire Karjalainen's post for Trello (below) describes, whilst "brainstorming" can sound like a great way for brilliant minds to converge and wrestle with a thorny problem, the results can often be more lacklustre than luminous.
According to Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, one of the reasons that brainstorming doesn't work is that if you're listening to someone else's talking about their thoughts on a particular issue then your brain is not creating its own. "Sub-consciously you're already assimilating to my ideas."
It seems obvious, of course, that your own imagination won't have the space it needs to flourish if you're trying to consider what someone else is saying to you. Alongside this limitation, there's also the phenomenon of "he [or she] who shouts loudest" to contend with.
Jeff Sutherland in his brilliant book Scrum The Art of doing Twice the Work in Half the Time speaks, to this end, of "the bandwagon effect": someone has an idea at the beginning of a meeting, which the group start to discuss and elaborate on, and soon everyone is on board with it (even if there are some unspoken misgivings about it) for fear of not going along with the group.
Back at the Kellogg School, they refer to this innovational stifling as "conformity pressure". With the early ideas voiced dominating the rest of the discussion, there must necessarily be a great many ideas left unspoken and thus undeveloped.
But surely, it can't be all bad? There are still excellent teams out there, doing imaginative work and collaborating on clever, new solutions to problems we didn't even know existed.
Whilst Karjalainen explores the challenges brainstorming, she also offers some excellent suggestions for stimulating individual ingenuity whilst allowing some group creativity to enhance those ideas.
Generally, we try group brainstorming when we want to create a lot of unfiltered ideas. We’re hoping the old adage of “many heads are better than one” gets us better ideas than if we all tackled the task independently. The problem? Many heads in the same room doesn’t help us come up with better ideas at all... Humans are social creatures. That doesn’t mean we all love being social, but rather that we are hardwired to respond in certain ways to the presence of other humans and their actions. When we’re in a group, inevitably, group dynamics will take over. A few of them can be pretty harmful to the end goal of getting a bunch of good ideas out of a brainstorming session.